When we moved from Philadelphia to Elizabethtown over 17 years ago, we faced a dilemma we had never before encountered. Because our house was built on farmland in a semi-rural community, there was no public water service in our neighborhood. We had to rely on a well. Years of farming left the water in danger of high nitrate content. A neighbor told us about a little store front not far from our house where we could purchase purified water. Each and every week, we’d load our car with gallon-sized plastic jugs and pockets with quarters before heading to Crystal Pure Water. It was a small little business started by a local man named Ray Diener. He had three coin-operated dispensers (25 cents a gallon!) in his shop.
For over 17 years now we’ve continued to go to Crystal Pure Water about once a week. Oftentimes Ray would be in his usually unattended store cleaning the machines, restocking bottles, and chatting with customers. A gentle and unassuming man, Ray was always pleasant and loved providing this service for his neighbors. Few knew that Ray’s generosity extended far beyond our own community. He was actively involved in providing water purification systems for needy communities in under-developed countries around the world. In fact, he was instrumental in starting numerous mission trips and service projects.
Two years ago this coming May, our community was shocked when Ray Diener was murdered one evening on the front step of his home. He died in the arms of his wife. Not long thereafter, the police arrested four local teenagers and charged them with murder. Earlier this week, the then 18-year-old trigger-man, Abraham Sanchez, was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder. This morning, our paper’s headlines informed us with the words “Killer gets death,” that the same jury voted for the death penalty for Sanchez, the son of a pastor.
All last week our newspaper reported on the high profile trial. The three young accomplices – who all have yet to go to trial themselves on charges of criminal homicide – told the horrific story of what happened that night in May 2007. The four were driving around Elizabethtown looking randomly for a home to rob. They saw Ray Diener through the window, sitting in his house. They knocked on the door. Diener came to the door and they asked to use his phone. Soon after Diener brought them the phone, Sanchez pulled a gun and according to one of the guys, Ray Diener knew what was about to happen. He was shot three times while pleading for his life.
Today, my morning paper was filled with lots of other bad news. I read about a young gunman in Samson, Alabama who killed 10 people then took his own life. I read about a 17-year-old teenager in Winnenden, Germany who went into his old high school and killed 15 people, before taking his own life. And, I couldn’t help but think about the Illinois pastor who was shot and killed last Sunday during a worship service.
How are we to make sense of all this? I would never posit easy answers. I can only go back to the “this I knows” that give us some limited knowledge of what goes on. Providentially, I’ve been committed this year to reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion with a small group of people. Over the course of the last couple of weeks, our assigned reading has taken us through Calvin’s systematic description of humanity’s fall into sin, and the depravity that effects us all. This morning I skimmed back over some of what Calvin wrote regarding how the Scriptures define this universal condition. He writes things like “A true knowledge of ourselves destroys self-confidence,” “sin overturns the whole man,” “no one is permitted to receive God’s blessings unless he is consumed with the awareness of his own poverty,” “only damnable things come forth from man’s nature,” and we “have all been overwhelmed by an unavoidable calamity from which only God’s mercy can deliver” us. The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). The prophet Isaiah tells us what we should already know. . . that violence is in our hands, that our feet rush into sin, and that we are swift to shed innocent blood (Isaiah 59:6&7). When we truly understand all this, we must lament with the Apostle Paul over our wretchedness. And, we should rejoice in the life-giving coming of our Savior.
When I read this morning’s account of Ray Diener’s last minutes on earth, I was struck by the fact that his killing was random. Could his killers have looked in my window that night and chosen me? Sure. Maybe it’s safe to say that I was fortunate. Should my horrified look at Abraham Sanchez and other cold-blooded killers include pats on my back of self-admiration because “I would never do anything like that”? No. If I know the human heart. . . . my heart. . . then I know that I’m only one bad decision away from doing the same myself. It’s only by the grace of God that I’m not there. The fact is, the more I look at the Scriptures and see myself through the light of God’s word, there but for the grace of God go I. I can’t be one of those people who says of others or myself, “He’s not the type of person that would do something like that.” If we’re really honest, we’re all pretty messed up.
And so as I read the local headlines this morning, I’m forced to think about human depravity, its depth, and its extent. I’m grateful to the God who has given me the “life sentence” I don’t deserve. And, I’m grateful to all the people who he’s used over the course of my life to serve as signposts, pointing me to that life-giving place known as the cross. That cross can only shine as bright as it does, when seen in the midst of the total darkness of our sin.